I love cooking. I’m the sort of person that will read a whole cookbook from cover to cover in a single afternoon, just for fun. I’m addicted to Top Chef, I have a crush on Anthony Bourdain, and spend more money on cookware than makeup.

All that being said, there are days when I can’t bear the thought of having to plan a meal, let alone cook. Sometimes when I’m really stressed, I just can’t muster up the energy for cooking, even though I love it. I just think, “Oh God. ANOTHER thing I have to deal with today.”

But if I can just push through that initial reluctance, I’m back in my element. The kitchen is my domain, and being in control of one aspect of my life helps me to feel like maybe, just maybe, I can regain control over the rest of my life.

Cooking isn’t something that everyone enjoys, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that I’m not alone in my feelings that time in the kitchen can lead to serious stress relief. Not convinced? Check out the breakdown below.

1. The “Voodoo” Effect

Sometimes, busting through your stress is as simple as reasserting your dominance at the top of the food chain. Maybe it’s a little dark, but chopping veggies and butchering chickens can really take the edge off of even the most stressful days. Have a big fight with your boss? Pretend that carrot is his car and go to town on it.

By using your ingredients like voodoo dolls, you’ll find that cutting through a couple of pounds of food has really calmed you down.

2. Aromatherapy

Cooking with certain herbs, spices, and aromatics can have beneficial effects on your mood, as I touched on in a recent post.

Here’s a brief breakdown of some common household scents/cooking ingredients, along with how they can change your mood/outlook on life:

Energizing/Invigorating: Orange, Rosemary, Lemon.
Stress Relief: Lavender, Sage.
Sleep Aids: Lavender, Chamomile.
Mood Elevators: Mint, Basil.

Get a few of these ingredients simmering in a pot with your dinner, and the smell of your meal cooking will help to release the tension from your body.

3. Foods That Reduce Stress and Anxiety

After a stressful day at the office, it might be tempting to order take-out. You’ve already had a long day, and chances are you’d rather have a hot meal now than wait for something to cook up. But actually, cooking your own meals will give you a greater degree of control over what you are putting in your body…and there is a definite link between the foods you put in your body and how well you cope with stress.

For example, trans fats are just as bad for your body as they are for your coping mechanisms. Trans fats block certain chemical receptors in the body, which in turn can limit your ability to deal with stressful situation.

According to a study published in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, you can cause significant reduction in the number of stress hormones in your body by eating dark chocolate. The study found that people who identified as highly stressed and ate a few pieces of dark chocolate on a daily basis for two weeks lowered their stress levels.

Other foods linked to stress relief include turkey, walnuts, sweet potatoes, almonds, spinach, and salmon.

4. Gain Control Over One Area of Your Life

One of the reasons I love cooking is because it gives me back some small degree of control over my life. In the words of Julie Powell in the film “Julie and Julia”, “Chocolate cream pie! You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when NOTHING is sure and when I say nothing, I mean NOTHING, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. That’s such a comfort.”

We get stressed out when our lives spin out of control. Taking charge of one small area of your life can help more than you might realize.

5. The Zen of Cookery

After you start cooking, you can sometimes reach this state of meditation. You’re in the zone of cutting, grinding, and sauteing. All that matters is the food, and it’s nice to throw away the cares of the day and just focus on one small task at a time.

Food Network’s Alton Brown has said that cooking is “a very calming ritual. It’s a different kind of stress relief than I get doing anything else…[we] find kind of a physical solace doing things with our hands, more and more in the kitchen. The sounds, the smells, the feels of that room are comforting to me.”

Conclusion

The next time you have a terrible day the office, pick up a saute pan. Cooking is a hobby that relaxes you, and has the added bonus of being nourishing, too. Skip the spa and get relaxed the old-fashioned way: in front of the stovetop.

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